My grandfather rarely talked about his life in Russia, and he died before I was born. These two facts of course made me obsessively curious about him. That curiosity fuels my work, now art, to this day.
There were a few things I knew about my grandfather: he was born Boris L. Bobroff – or Bobrov, depending on how you transliterate the Cyrillic letters into English. He came to the US around 1905 at the age of 22. Like many Russian men at that time he probably left the country to avoid being drafted into the Russian army to fight in the Russo-Japanese War.
When Boris came to the US, he changed his first name to Bornett. Bornett was an odd choice, in my opinion, not in a good way. So I’ll use Boris as much as I can.
Boris/Bornett moved to Milwaukee and later Racine, Wisconsin. He invented and patented various electrical signaling devices, including the voting machine used in state legislatures and a version of hospital nursing call lights. Most ubiquitous was his invention of the turn signal for cars and other motor vehicles. He held patents on the original invention of the auto turn signal, and on many design improvements over the decades following. He manufactured his turn signals in a small factory called Teleoptic, in Racine.
Because of my grandfather’s inventions, the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison holds some of his papers. Years ago, my mother and I traveled there to look at them.
The most intriguing of the papers was a letter of recommendation written about my grandfather’s work at an agricultural equipment factory in Ryazan, Russia. There was an English translation of the letter, stamped with a fancy seal that apparently made it an official translation. The recommendation said that my grandfather had been hired as a “worker,” but performed the function of an engineer.
Now engineers in Russia at that time were hot stuff, like the techies of today, only there were far fewer of them. So being called an engineer in Russia then was a big deal. I believe at that time young Boris had no engineering education, so he was probably winging it. But he must have been naturally talented, especially because, as I’ve since found out, the man who signed his recommendation, Levontin, was the famous founder of what’s become the huge Ryazan Combine Plant, in existence to this day.
The fact that my grandfather was working and living in Ryazan raised in my mind the first of several mysteries I’ve been pursuing ever since. Jews in Russia were allowed to live only in the Jewish Pale of Settlement. And Ryazan was outside the Pale.
There were ways Jews could win permission to live outside the Pale. One of them was to have a degree in a field like engineering. But my grandfather, as far as I know, didn’t have a degree. So how had he gotten to Ryazan? Had he been born there, the child of parents who did have some kind of engineering education? Had he come alone? If so, how?
Another vague family story about my grandfather involved a mysterious trip he had taken to Bolshevik Russia in 1920, involving manufacturing shoes for the Russians. Traveling to Russia at that time was illegal for a US citizen. So that was a second mystery.
After a couple years of searching the internet for more information, I suddenly hit on a wildly surprising discovery. On Bobroff’s return from Russia aboard a steamship, he was picked up by the Bureau of Investigation (BOI, later the FBI) as he docked in New York. I’d never heard about that before!
It turned out my grandfather had formed the Bobroff Foreign Trading and Engineering Company in Milwaukee and had gotten more than $6,000,000 in contracts from Russia for American-made machinery and boots.
The BOI agents confiscated several things from my grandfather: materials relating to his engineering work and a long letter addressed to the Soviet Bureau in Philadephia. The BOI agents believed my grandfather had written this letter, signed “Bill.” Later, Boris/Bornett testified he had only been delivering the letter, from a mysterious man he ran into in Copenhagen while waiting for his ship back to the US.
So another mystery emerged: did my grandfather write that letter, or was he truly an unwitting courier?
Most recently, thanks to googlebooks’ scanning of obscure out-of-print books, I found 25 pages of testimony by my grandfather to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 1921. Another big surprise! The committee was investigating “Conditions in Russia” three years after the Bolsheviks came to power. And Bobroff had just returned from that far off country.
This was the height of the Red Scare in the US, and during the hearing the Congressmen were often belligerent toward my grandfather. For his part, Bobroff argued back that the US government should reverse its policy against Russian gold being imported into the country. This gold had been accumulated by the Romanov tsars over the centuries. The Bolsheviks – by then in power for over 3 years – wanted to use this tsarist gold to pay for trade goods of the kind my grandfather was trying to sell them.
Was my grandfather a businessman just trying to make money in all this? Or was he politically involved in trying to aid the Soviets? It’s known there was an effort at that time, both in Europe and the US, to win US recognition of the new Russian government by establishing trade. It was thought that diplomatic recognition would follow any robust development of trade.
I now have more mysteries than I started with about my grandfather. So the sleuthing continues….